Rising income and wealth disparity is the trend likely to most affect the Arab world in the coming years. Polarization of societies could have the second-largest impact, followed by cyber-dependency and climate change. Based on the results of surveys conducted among a group of global experts and businesses from the region, these findings are part of the briefing on the New Economic Context for the Arab World published during the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa.
Based on data published in previous flagship publications of the World Economic Forum such as the Global Risks Report 2017 and the Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017, the briefing highlights how the economic context for the region is expected to change in the future, its current status of competitiveness and the challenges it will need to address.
Rising income inequality is the trend that is perceived to have the highest potential impact for most countries, as businesses throughout the region show their concern about unemployment (61% in Jordan), profound social instability (47% in Tunisia) and failure of national governance (49% in Lebanon). Polarization of society also has the potential to trigger governance issues and even state collapse, a concrete risk in Yemen (68% of businesses selected it as a risk of major concern) and in the minds of one-third of the executives in Lebanon.
Cyber-dependency and climate change are also expected to have a significant impact on the region. Countries with more advanced ICT environments are more likely to be prone to the threats linked to cyber-dependency. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, one-third of companies say they are worried about cyber-attacks and one in 10 sees data fraud as a risk of major concern.
Countries with more fragile environmental and geographic conditions are less likely to succeed in adapting to climate change and its consequences. Businesses in Jordan (60%) and Qatar (34%) are worried about water crises, as both countries have already experienced shortages in recent years.
Beyond the consequences of these global trends, the region is prone to a number of risks that are specific to its current economic structure, and in particular the oil-exporting economies. In 2016, 42% of businesses were concerned about the consequences of energy price shocks in Saudi Arabia, 45% in Qatar, 49% in Bahrain, 50% in the UAE, 52% in Oman and 62% in Kuwait. Fiscal crises are also on the watch list of executives in the region, staying high in the minds of 31% of them in Saudi Arabia, 34% in Kuwait, 41% in Algeria and 47% in Bahrain. Finally, asset bubbles concerned 39% of executives in Qatar, 43% in Kuwait and 51% in the UAE.
In addition to the macroeconomic environment, the functioning of the labour market is also challenging. With a large portion of women out of the workforce and high unemployment among the youth, the region is not best leveraging its talent. Upgrading the higher education and training system will need to go hand-in-hand with the improvement of labour market policies, as these are some of the areas where the gap with advanced economies remains largest.
Increasing capacity to innovate and technological readiness will also be key to driving the forces of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and benefiting from them. Increasingly, there are positive examples, but these will need to scale up and new technologies spread out for the countries to increase productivity and prosper in an inclusive manner.
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The absence of internationally comparable data for many countries in the region does not allow a full assessment of their level of inclusivity. For these countries, improving data availability will be a key step in ensuring that the needs of their populations are addressed.
Diversifying the economy, reducing public intervention in the markets, providing opportunities for young people and improving the innovation ecosystem are the key challenges that the region will face in the coming years. They will be the subject of further research to be conducted jointly with the World Bank Group in preparing the Arab World Competitiveness Report 2017.